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1

SCRAMBLE LINE ENCRYPTED

STAND BY STAND BY

GEONOSIS FORWARD CONTROL TO FLEET SUPPORT, ORD MANTELL.

PREPARE TO RECEIVE CASEVAC TRANSPORT. MED TRIAGE TEAM ESTIMATE SERIOUS INJURIES, TWELVE THOUSAND, REPEAT TWELVE THOUSAND. WALKING WOUNDED EIGHT THOUSAND, REPEAT EIGHT THOUSAND. ETA TEN HOURS. LOGISTICS PRIORITY FOR BACTA TANK SUPPORT TEAMS.

PREP FOR SEVENTY-TWO THOUSAND COMBAT-FIT TROOPS, REPEAT SEVENTY-TWO THOUSAND, PENDING REDEPLOYMENT. PRIORITY WEAPONS SUPPORT FOR COMMANDO UNITS.

THAT IS ALL. OUT.


Republic assault ship Implacable: inbound for extraction from Geonosis. Stand by.


Republic Commando 1136 studied every face in line waiting to board the gunships.

Some were helmeted, and some were not, butone way or anotherthey all had his face. And they were all strangers.

Move it, the loadmaster shouted, gesturing side-to-side with one outstretched arm. Come on, shift it, peoplefast as you can. The gunships dropped down in clouds of dust and troopers embarked, some turning to pull comrades inboard so the ships could lift again quickly. There was no reason to scramble for it. Theyd done it a thousand times in training; extraction from a real battle was what theyd prepared for. This wasnt a retreat. Theyd grabbed their first victory.

The gunships downdraft kicked the red Geonosian soil into the air. RC-1136Darmantook off his helmet and ran his gauntlet carefully across the pale gray dome, wiping away the dust and noting a few scrapes and burn marks.

The loadmaster turned to him. He was one of the very, very few outsiders whom Darman had ever seen working with the Grand Army, a short, wrinkled Duros with a temper to match. Are you embarking or what?

Darman continued wiping his helmet. Im waiting for my mates, he said.

You shift your shiny silver backside now, the loadmaster said irritably. I got a schedule.

Darman carefully brought up his knuckle plate just under the loadmasterss chin, and held it there. He didnt need to eject the vibroblade and he didnt need to say a word. Hed made his point.

Well, whenever youre ready, sir, the Duros said, stepping back to chivy clone troopers instead. It wasnt a great idea to upset a commando, especially not one coming down from the adrenaline high of combat.

But there was still no sign of the rest of his squad. Darman knew that there was no point in waiting any longer. They hadnt called in. Maybe they had comlink failures. Maybe they had made it onto another gunship.

It was the first time in his artificially short life that Darman hadnt been able to reach out and touch the men he had been raised with.

He waited half a standard hour more anyway, until the gunships became less frequent and the lines of troopers became shorter. Eventually there was nobody standing on the desert plain but him, the Duros loadmaster, and half a dozen clone troopers. It was the last lift of the day.

You better come now, sir, the loadmaster said. Theres nobody unaccounted for. Nobody alive, anyway.

Darman looked around the horizon one last time, still feeling as if he were turning his back on someone reaching out to him.

Im coming, he said, and brought up the rear of the line. As the gunship lifted, he watched the swirling dust, dwindling rock formations, and scattered shrinking patches of scrub until Geonosis became a blur of dull red.

He could still search the Implacable. It wasnt over yet.

The gunship slipped into the Implacables giant docking bay, and Darman looked down into the cavern, onto a sea of white armor and orderly movement. The first thing that struck him when the gunship killed its thrusters and locked down on its pad was how quiet everyone seemed.

In the crowded bay full of troopers, the air stank of sweat and stale fear and the throat-rasping smell of discharged blaster rifles. But it was so silent that if Darman hadnt seen the evidence of exhausted and injured men, hed have believed that nothing significant had happened in the last thirty hours.

The deck vibrated under the soles of his boots. He was still staring down at them, studying the random patterns of Geonosian dust that clung to them, when an identical pair came into view.

Number? said a voice that was also his own. The commander swept him with a tally sensor: he didnt need Darman to tell him his number, or anything else for that matter, because the sensors in the enhanced Katarn armor reported his status silently, electronically. No significant injury. The triage team on Geonosis had waved him past, concentrating on the injured, ignoring both those too badly hurt to help and those who could help themselves. Are you listening to me? Come on. Talk to me, son.

Im okay, sir, he said. Sir, RC-one-one-three-six. Im not in shock. Im fine. He paused. Nobody else was going to call him by his squad nicknameDarmanagain. They were all dead, he knew it. Jay, Vin, Taler. He just knew. Sir, any news of RC-one-one-three-five

No, said the commander, who had obviously heard similar questions every time he stopped to check. He gestured with the small bar in his hand. If theyre not in casevac or listed on this sweep, then they didnt make it.

It was stupid to ask. Darman should have known better. Clone troopersand especially Republic commandosjust got on with the job. That was their sole purpose. And they were lucky, their training sergeant had told them; outside, in the ordinary world, every being from every species in the galaxy fretted about their purpose in life, searching for meaning. A clone didnt need to. Clones knew. They had been perfected for their role, and doubt need never trouble them.

Darman had never known what doubt was until now. No amount of training had prepared him for this. He found a space against a bulkhead and sat down.

A clone trooper settled down next to him, squeezing into the gap and briefly clunking a shoulder plate against his. They glanced at each other. Darman rarely had any contact with the other clones: commandos trained apart from everyone, including ARC troopers. The troopers armor was white, lighter, less resistant; commandos enjoyed upgraded protection. And Darman displayed no rank colors.

But they both knew exactly who and what they were.

Nice Deece, the trooper said enviously. He was looking at the DC-17: troopers were issued the heavier, lower-spec rifle, the DC-15. Ion pulse blaster, RPG anti-armor, and sniper?

Yeah. Every item of his gear was manufactured to a higher spec. A troopers life was less valuable than a commandos. It was the way things were, and Darman had never questioned itnot for long, anyway. Full house.

Tidy. The trooper nodded approval. Job done, eh?

Yeah, Darman said quietly. Job done.

The trooper didnt say anything else. Maybe he was wary of conversation with commandos. Darman knew what troopers thought about him and his kind. They dont train like us and they dont fight like us. They dont even talk like us. A bunch of prima donnas.

Darman didnt think he was arrogant. It was just that he could do every job a soldier could be called upon to do, and then some: siege assault, counterinsurgency, hostage extraction, demolitions, assassination, surveillance, and every kind of infantry activity on any terrain and in any environment, at any time. He knew he could, because hed done it. Hed done it in training, first with simunition and then with live rounds. Hed done it with his squad, the three brothers with whom hed spent every moment of his conscious life. Theyd competed against other squads, thousands just like them, but not like them, because they were squad brothers, and that was special.

He had never been taught how to live apart from the squad, though. Now he would learn the hardest way of all.

Darman had absolute confidence that he was one of the best special ops soldiers ever created. He was undistracted by the everyday concerns of raising a family and making a living, things that his instructors said he was lucky never to know.

But now he was alone. Very, very alone. It was very distracting indeed.

He considered this for a long time in silence. Surviving when the rest of your squad had been killed was no cause for pride. It felt instead like something his training sergeant had described as shame. That was what you felt when you lost a battle, apparently.

But they had won. It was their first battle, and they had won.

The landing ramp of the Implacable eased down, and the bright sunlight of Ord Mantell streamed in. Darman replaced his helmet without thinking and stood in an orderly line, waiting to disembark and be reassigned. He was going to be chilled down, kept in suspended animation until duty called again.

So this was the aftermath of victory. He wondered how much worse defeat might feel.


Imbraani, Qiilura: 40 light-years from Ord Mantetl,Tingel Arm


The field of barq flowed from silver to ruby as the wind from the southwest bent the ripening grain in waves. It could have been a perfect late-summer day; instead it was turning into one of the worst days of Etain Tur-Mukans life.

Etain had run and run and she had nothing left in her. She flung herself flat between the furrows, not caring where she fell. Etain held her breath as something stinking and wet squelched under her.

The pursuing Weequay couldnt hear her above the wind, she knew, but she held her breath anyway.

Hey girlie! His boots crunched closer. He was panting. Where you go? Dont be shy.

Dont breathe.

I got bottle of urrqal. You want to have party? He had a remarkably large vocabulary for a Weequay, all of it centered on his baser needs. I fun when you get to know me.

I should have waited for it to get dark. I could influence his mind, try to make him leave.

But she hadnt. And she couldnt, try as she might to concentrate. She was too full of adrenaline and uncontrolled panic.

Come on, you scrag-end, where are you? I find you

He sounded as if he was kicking his way through the crop, and getting closer. If she got up and ran for it, she was dead. If she stayed where she was, hed find hereventually. He wasnt going to get bored, and he wasnt going to give up.

Girlie

The Weequays voice was close, to her right, about twenty meters away. She sipped a strangled breath and clamped her lips shut again, lungs aching, eyes streaming with the effort.

Girlie Closer. He was going to step right on her. Gir-leeeeee

She knew what hed do when he found her. If she was lucky, hed kill her afterward.

Gir

The Weequay was interrupted by a loud, wet thwack. He let out a grunt and then there was a second thwack shorter, sharper, harder. Etain heard a squeal of pain.

How many times have I got to tell you, dikut? It was a different voice, human, with an hard edge of authority. Thwack. Dontwastemytime. Another thwack: another squeal. Etain kept her face pressed in the dirt. You get drunk one more time, you go chasing females one more time, and Im going to slit you from here tohere.

The Weequay shrieked. It was the sort of incoherent animal sound that beings made when pain overwhelmed them. Etain had heard too much of that sound in her short time on Qiilura. Then there was silence.

She hadnt heard the voice before, but she didnt need to. She knew exactly who it belonged to.

Etain strained to listen, half expecting a heavy boot to suddenly stamp on her back, but all she could hear was the swish and crunch of two pairs of feet wading through the crop. Away from her. She caught snatches of the fading conversation as the wind took it: the Weequay was still being berated.

more important

What was?

later, but right now, dikut, I need you to okay? Or Ill cut

Etain waited. Eventually all she could hear was the breath of the wind, the rustling grain, and the occasional fluting call of a ground-eel seeking a mate. She allowed herself to breathe normally again, but still she waited, facedown in ripe manure, until dusk started to fall. She had to move now. The gdans would be out hunting, combing the fields in packs. On top of that, the smell that hadnt bothered her while she was gripped by terror was starting to really bother her now.

She eased herself up on her elbows, then her knees, and looked around.

Why did they have to manure barq so late in the season anyway? She fumbled in the pockets of her cloak for a cloth. Now if only she could find a stream, she could clean herself up. She pulled a handful of stalks, crushed them into a ball, and tried to scrape off the worst of the dung and debris stuck to her.

Thats a pretty expensive crop to be using for that, a voice said.

Etain gulped in a breath and spun around to find a local in a grubby smock scowling at her. He looked thin, worn out, and annoyed; he was holding a threshing tool. Do you know how much that stuffs worth?

Im sorry, she said. Sliding her hand carefully inside her cloak, she felt for the familiar cylinder. She hadnt wanted the Weequay to know that she was a Jedi, but if this farmer was considering turning her in for a few loaves or a bottle of urrqal, shed need her lightsaber handy. It was your barq or my life, Im afraid.

The farmer stared at the crushed stalks and the scattered bead-like grains, tight-lipped. Yes, barq fetched a huge price in the restaurants of Coruscant: it was a luxury, and the people who grew it for export couldnt afford it. That didnt seem to bother the Neimoidians who controlled the trade. It never did.

Ill pay for the damage, Etain said, her hand still inside the cloak.

What were they after you for? the farmer asked, ignoring her offer.

The usual, she said.

Oh-ah, youre not that good looking.

Charming.

I know who you are.

Oh no. Her grip closed. You do?

I reckon.

A little more food for his family. A few hours drunken oblivion, courtesy of urrqal. That was all she was to him. He made as if to step closer and she drew her arm clear of her cloak, because she was fed up with running and she didnt like the look of that threshing tool.

Vzzzzzmmmm.

Oh, great, the farmer sighed, eyeing the shaft of pure blue light. Not one of you lot. Thats all we need.

Yes, she said, and held the lightsaber steady in front of her face. Her stomach had knotted, but she kept her voice under control. I am Padawan Etain Tur-Mukan. You can try to turn me in, if you want to test my skill, but Id prefer that you help me instead. Your call, sir.

The farmer stared at the lightsaber as if he was trying to work out a price for it. Didnt help your Master much, that thing, did it?

Master Fulier was unfortunate. And betrayed. She lowered the lightsaber but didnt cut the beam. Are you going to help me?

Were going to have Ghez Hokans thugs all over us if I

I think theyre busy, Etain said.

What do you want from us?

Shelter, for the moment.

The farmer sucked his teeth thoughtfully. Okay. Come on, Padawan

Get used to calling me Etain, please. She thumbed off the lightsaber: the light died with a ffumm sound, and she slipped the hilt back inside her cloak. Just to be on the safe side.

Etain trailed after him, trying not to smell herself, but it was hard, nauseatingly hard. Even a scent-hunting gdan wouldnt recognize her as a human. It was getting dark now, and the farmer kept glancing over his shoulder at her.

Oh-ah. He shook his head, engaged in some internal conversation. Im Birhan, and this is my land. And I thought you lot were supposed to be able to use some sort of mind control tricks.

How do you know I havent? Etain lied.

Oh-ah, he said, and nothing more.

She wasnt going to volunteer the obvious if he hadnt spotted it for himself. A disappointment to her Master, she was clearly not the best of the bunch. She struggled with the Force and she grappled with self-discipline, and she was here because she and Master Fulier happened to be nearby when a job needed doing. Fulier never could resist a challenge and long odds, and it looked as if hed paid the price. They hadnt found his body yet, but there had been no word from him, either.

Yes, Etain was a Padawan, technically speaking.

She just happened to be one who was a breath away from building permadomes in refugee camps. She reasoned that part of a Jedis skill was the simple use of psychology. And if Birhan wanted to think the Force was strong in her, and that there was a lot more behind the external shell of a gawky, plain girl covered in stinking dung, then that was fine by her.

It would keep her alive a little longer while she worked out what to do next.


Fleet Support, Ord Mantell, barrack block 5 Epsilon


It was a waste, a rotten waste.

RC-1309 busied himself maintaining his boots. He cleaned out the clamps, blowing the red dust clear with a squirt of air from the pressure gun. He rinsed the liners and shook them dry. There was no point being idle while he was waiting to be chilled down.

Sergeant?

He looked up. The commando who had walked in placed his survival pack, armor, and black bodysuit on the bunk opposite and stared back. His readout panel identified him as RC-8015.

Im Fi, he said, and held out his hand for shaking. So you lost your squad, too.

Niner, RC-1309 said without taking the proffered hand. So, ner vod my brotheryoure the sole survivor?

Yes.

Did you hold back while your brothers pressed on? Or were you just lucky?

Fi stood there with his hands on his hips, identical to Niner in every way except that he was different. He spoke a little differently. He smelled subtly different. He moved his hands not like Niners squad did, not at all.

I did my job, Fi said carefully. And Id rather be with them than here ner vod.

Niner considered him for a while, and went back to cleaning his boots. Fi put his kit in the locker beside the bunks, then swung himself up into the top rack in one smooth motion. He folded his arms under his head very precisely and lay staring up at the bulkhead as if he were meditating.

If he had been Sev, Niner would have known exactly what he was doing, even without looking. But Sev was gone.

Clone troopers lost brothers in training. So did commandos. But troopers were socialized with whole sections, platoons, companies, even regiments, and that meant that even after the inevitable deaths and removals during live exercises, there were still plenty of people around you whom you knew well. Commandos worked solely with each other.

Niner had lost everyone he had grown up with, and so had Fi.

Hed lost a brother beforeTwo-Eighton exercise. The three survivors had welcomed the replacement, although they had always felt he was slightly differenta little distantas if he had never quite believed hed been accepted.

But they performed to expected levels of excellence togetherand as long as they did, their Kaminoan technicians and motley band of alien instructors didnt seem to care how they felt about it.

But the commandos cared. They just kept it to themselves.

It was a waste, Niner said.

What was? Fi said.

Deploying us in an operation like Geonosis. It was an infantry job. Not special ops.

That sounds like criticism of

Im just making the point that we couldnt perform to maximum effectiveness.

Understood. Maybe when were revived well be able to do what were really trained for.

Niner wanted to say that he missed his squad, but that wasnt something to confide in a stranger. He inspected his boots and was satisfied. Then he stood up and spread his bodysuit flat on the mattress and checked it for vacuum integrity with the sweep-sensor in his glove. It was a ritual so ingrained in him that he hardly thought about it: maintain boots, suit, and armor plates, recalibrate helmet systems, check heads-up display, strip down and reassemble DC-17, empty and repack survival pack. Done. It took him twenty-six minutes and twenty seconds, give or take two seconds. Well-maintained gear was often the difference between life and death. So was two seconds.

He closed the top of his pack with a clack and secured the seal. Then he checked the catches that held the separate ordnance pack to see that they were moving freely. That mattered when he needed to jettison explosive materials fast. When he glanced up, Fi was propped on one elbow, looking down at him from the bunk.

Dry rations go on the fifth layer, he said.

Niner always packed them farther down, between his spare rappelling line and his hygiene kit. In your squad, maybe, he said, and carried on.

Fi took the hint and rolled over on his back again, no doubt to meditate on how differently things might be done in the future.

After a while he started singing very quietly, almost under his breath: Komrk tsad droten troch nyn ures adenn, Dha Werda Verda aden tratu. They were the wrath of the warriors shadow and the gauntlet of the Republic; Niner knew the song. It was a traditional Mandalorian war chant, designed to boost the morale of normal men who needed a bit of psyching up before a fight. The words had been altered a little to have meaning for the armies of clone warriors.

We dont need all that, Niner thought. We were born to fight, nothing else.

But he found himself joining in anyway. It was a comfort. He placed his gear in the locker, rolled onto his bunk, and matched note and beat perfectly with Fi, two identical voices in the deserted barrack room.

Niner would have traded every remaining moment of his life for a chance to rerun the previous days engagement. He would have held Sev and DD back; he would have sent O-Four west with the E-Web cannon.

But he hadnt.

Gratua cuun hett su dralshya. Our vengeance burns brighter still.

Fis voice trailed off into silence the merest fraction of a section before Niners. He heard him swallow hard.

I was up there with them, Sarge, he said quietly. I didnt hang back. Not at all.

Niner closed his eyes. He regretted hinting that Fi might have done anything less.

I know, brother, he said. I know.


PROLOGUE | Republic Commando: Hard Contact | c